PILLARS OF THE STATEHOUSE
Legislative clerks and secretaries enforce the rules, record proceedings, and this year, celebrate the 70th anniversary of their professional staff network.
By Angela Andrews
Chief clerks and secretaries may be few in number, but they’re mighty in stature. They were the first type of legislative staff and are the backbone of a legislative chamber. They serve as parliamentarians, chief administrative officers and record-keepers. They oversee the legislative process and ensure its rules, traditions and practices are followed.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries (ASLCS), the professional organization for these legislative staff members. As their jobs have grown in complexity and expanded in responsibilities, it’s clear the organization has not only provided great professional development opportunities, but personal support as well.
Karen Wadsworth, clerk of the New Hampshire House of Representatives since 1994, says the organization is like family with coast-to-coast connections. “When most people see that your job title is clerk, they think it’s someone ringing up an order at 7-Eleven. It’s nice to be part of a group that understands exactly what I do and that has the knowledge to answer my parliamentary questions,” she says.
Scott Kaiser, assistant secretary of the Illinois Senate, adds that it can boost one’s confidence to know, from talking with other clerks and secretaries, that the frustrations, challenges and struggles he faces as part of his job in Illinois, “are no different elsewhere.”
The American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries is an “incredible network of clerks and secretaries from across the country that you can call in a moment’s notice to get professional advice,” says Patsy Spaw, secretary of the Texas Senate and immediate past staff chair of NCSL. “I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by, and rub shoulders with, the best of the best who care about your professional development.”
But, beyond the professional development and support, ask any member what the society means to them and the answer is always the same: friendship. “I’ve met wonderful friends that I’ve been able to share life experiences with and, if given the opportunity, I’d do a lot for them in a heartbeat,” says Patrick O’Donnell, clerk of the Nebraska Legislature and former NCSL staff chair. “We are all in a similar position, and we all have passion for our work and respect for the legislative institution.”
The organization was founded in 1943, but clerks and secretaries date as far back as 1619, when the first-known U.S. clerk, John Twine, oversaw the House of Burgess in the Colony of Virginia.
Not surprising, the duties of the job have expanded greatly since then. Today’s clerks and secretaries are also responsible for oversight of public and media relations, chamber technology, purchasing, printing, and fiscal and human resource operations of the legislature. Spaw, for example, oversees 15 departments, both administrative and legislative. She manages 300 staff during the legislative session and 250 during the interim. During sessions, they call roll, tally votes to ensure quorums, read bills into the record and maintain decorum during debates.
But a lot of their work is behind the scene. “Reading of the bills, taking the roll call ... that’s a small part, but the most visible part, of our job,” says Kaiser. Seventy percent of a clerk’s work is administrative and takes place off the floor, he says.
A key part of that administrative work is preparing the chamber’s journal, the official record of legislative action, a task that remains from when Twine was required to “attend at the table and take notes of the orders and proceedings,” writes parliamentary scholar Luther Cushing in “Cushing’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice: Rules of Proceeding and Debate in Deliberative Assemblies.”
“At the end of the session, it is the business of the clerk to see that the journal of the session is properly prepared, and fairly transcribed from the minute books, the printed votes, and the original papers that have been laid before the house,” he writes.
For most clerks, secretaries and their staff, their interest in policymaking walks them through the doors of the capitol, but their love of the institution and of the legislative process is what keeps them there. Although the job requires many skills, there is no formal degree program or training to become one.
Kaiser got the job of assistant secretary after serving as a policy adviser to the Illinois General Assembly and to Governor Jim Edgar. He has always been intrigued by the legislative process, holds a deep respect for the institution, enjoys the traditions of the Illinois Senate and takes pride in “knowing the rules and how to use them.” Kaiser kept his eye on the assistant secretary position and was elected to it in 2004.
Karen Wadsworth’s path to the office of clerk of the New Hampshire House of Representatives began in the chamber itself, where she served for 10 years as a legislator. Known for her grasp of the rules in her work with House committees, Wadsworth was recruited for the clerk position when her predecessor died suddenly. She was hesitant to give up the policy debates she enjoyed as a legislator, but she was intrigued by the role of clerk and agreed to give it a try. She made history when elected in 1994 as the first female, and now longest-serving, clerk in the New Hampshire House. She has always been nominated by both parties, as well.
In 1969, when electronic typewriters and carbon paper were the norm, Patsy Spaw started in the Texas Senate Secretary’s office as a typist during the state’s biennial sessions. She discovered each bill had a story behind it, and her interest in the legislative process bloomed. In 1977 she was elected as the engrossing and enrolling clerk of the Texas Senate, and served in this position for 23 years. During this time Spaw grew both personally and professionally, developing the department and learning to manage a staff of 60, including 10 lawyers.
“I had an eagerness to improve, a willingness to learn, I loved what I did, but wanted to do it better.” Furthering her personal development, she earned both her undergraduate degree and law degree. And in 2001 her hard work paided off when she was elected secretary of the Texas Senate.
In most states, clerks and secretaries are required to be nonpartisan and unbiased in their decisions. On days when controversial bills are debated, Spaw, as a nonpartisan officer, takes extra care to review the chamber’s rules and historical actions. If asked, she will give any senator her confidential advice on rules. But she does not participate in policy or political strategy sessions with members.
Remaining nonpartisan can be challenging during tense times. Spaw recounts the time in 2003 when Democratic senators fled to New Mexico to break quorum and avoid a vote on redistricting legislation. She was required to sign their arrest warrants and deny them Senate services during their absence.
“I was doing my job, what I had to do, but prayed that the Democrat senators did not think my actions were a judgment on them. We have responsibilities, and we have to fulfill them,” says Spaw.
For O’Donnell, a particularly dramatic time occurred during one legislative session in the 1980s when the Legislature impeached the sitting attorney general. He was required to follow the rules, as outlined in Nebraska’s Constitution, which assigns the job of serving papers to the clerk. He recalls the weighty responsibility of serving papers to both the attorney general and the state Supreme Court. “The Legislature was in an investigatory mode the entire session. It spent time, energy and money to prepare for the impeachment process and build the record that would be used in court. I remember my hand trembling when I took the roll for the impeachment vote.”
In some states, clerks and secretaries are partisan officers, selected by the majority party. In the Illinois Senate, for example, the secretary is nominated by the majority caucus and the assistant secretary is nominated by the minority caucus, but both are elected as officers of the chamber by the entire body.
As the assistant secretary of the Illinois Senate, Kaiser shares his responsibilities with the secretary of the Senate, right down to splitting the task of calling the roll. Even with this partisan structure, an arrangement that goes back more than 60 years, Kaiser emphasizes the bipartisan nature of his position and credits his predecessors for creating an environment that values impartiality, even when leadership flips from one party to the other. “We serve all 59 members of the Illinois Senate. We stay above the fray.”
Clerks and secretaries prize their roles as protectors of the legislative institution. When Wadsworth became New Hampshire’s clerk, she says her main goal was to preserve the House’s traditions and long-term memory of how things have been done and why. “If there’s no institutional memory, the legislature’s not a special place,” she says.
Wadsworth and others often say they help lawmakers understand why “things are the way they are.” O’Donnell continually educates his members about the legislative process, the power of the legislature and the importance of preserving institutional prerogatives.
“Members complain about the amount of time spent on the floor and in committee hearings,” says O’Donnell. “I tell them that taking time to argue about something is good—it’s building consensus toward a goal. Forty-nine people with different life experiences and talents listening to each other is a fundamental part of the process.”
The position’s challenges include long hours, partisan divisiveness and public apathy about the legislative process. O’Donnell faces another challenge: Sensitizing members to the legislative process in a term-limited state. “I am the constant, the memory and the repository of certain traditions. I can advise, but I can’t mentor.”
Still, most clerks and secretaries and their staffs consider it a privilege to serve. “I love my job, especially having access to a variety of people and hearing fascinating stories,” says Wadsworth. She cherishes her role as a mother figure to many of the new members. She recalls one opening day of session when her seamstress skills were called into service to help a newly elected legislator fit into his newly acquired suit and appear prepared and ready for all the challenges that lay ahead.
For Kaiser, the best part of the job is the view from the rostrum.“Where I sit, I see everybody all at once. It allows me to see something develop on the floor before it happens,” he says. While other staff are busy during session, he relishes the deliberative and steady nature of his position, a job that has stood the test of time.
Patrick O’Donnell, clerk of the Nebraska Legislature, has spent more than 36 years protecting the institution. He is the longest serving clerk currently in office and one of the most respected. He’s a guiding light for those new in their roles. “I try to sensitize new clerks and secretaries about their role in the legislature. I want them to understand that they help state legislatures work better.”
Paul Mason: Author of “Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure”
O’Donnell got his start in Nebraska’s Unicameral in 1974, as a senior in law school. Three years later he was elected assistant clerk, and by the “tender age of 28,” as O’Donnell describes it, he was elected clerk. When asked if he actively sought the position, O’Donnell says, “I was the guy left standing, but I was also in the right place at the right time. I was scared to death, but I was also willing to work hard.”
At the national level, O‘Donnell served as president of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries in 1987 and as staff chair for NCSL during the 1989–1990 term. He also has participated in periodic revisions of Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure.
Colleagues across the country often seek O’Donnell’s advice, insight and wisdom, but what’s the best advice he’s received?
“A few years after I was elected clerk, one of my members said to me: ‘You know what you’re doing, now start acting like it.’ That’s when I learned that having a presence is important.”
Paul Mason, as chief assistant secretary and parliamentarian of the California Senate, quietly made his mark on the world of state legislatures when he wrote his first “Manual of Legislative Procedure” in 1935.
Mason’s hobby was the legislative process—he wrote his master’s thesis on the topic, published a book on the California Constitution, and developed a guide for presiding officers in the form of questions. That guide is believed to be the precursor to today’s Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure—the No. 1 resource for state legislative rules and procedures.
Mason updated his manual six times. Before his death in 1985, he assigned its copyright to NCSL and requested the manual continue to be updated and reprinted, which is done roughly every 10 years by the 16-member Mason’s Manual Commission.
It is used by more than 70 percent of the nation’s legislative chambers.
Joseph Beek: Founder of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries
Joseph Beek wanted to increase communication among the nation’s legislative clerks and secretaries. So in 1943, as secretary of the California Senate, he organized the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries (ASLCS) and served as its president for 25 years. He believed that not only would his profession benefit, but that legislatures around the country would improve as well.
Angela Andrews is NCSL’s staff liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.
By forming an organized group, Beek believed his colleagues would be reminded of their role in strengthening the institution and supported in their efforts, says Brian Ebbert, assistant chief clerk of the California Assembly.
As ASLCS prepares for its 70th birthday celebration in Sacramento this fall, it’s clear Beek’s vision has been realized. Ask any society member what he or she has gained from being a part of the society and the list will be long—friends, professional development, wisdom and invaluable connections.
Ebbert, a Beek and Mason scholar, calls the two men “the dream team.” Yet neither sought the limelight.
“They just wanted to improve the legislative process and strengthen the institution,” he says. And they did.